A Classic American Play Gets the APIA Treatment

This Sunday, August 21, at 2 p.m., JANM is pleased to host a unique staged reading of Arthur Miller’s iconic drama, “Death of a Salesman.” Directed by Michael Miraula and produced by Tadamori Yagi, the reading will feature a predominantly Asian American cast as it attempts to explore minority relations within the larger context of mainstream white America in the late 1950s.

To learn more about this production, we conducted the following interview with Yagi, an LA–based actor who, in addition to producing this reading, also plays the role of Biff, Willy Loman’s son.

Actor and producer Tadamori Yagi
Actor and producer Tadamori Yagi
JANM: How did this production of “Death of a Salesman” come about?

Tadamori Yagi: I really wanted to work on this play; specifically, I wanted to act the role of Biff. When considering how best to go about this, I immediately realized two things: 1) Willy’s family would have to be cast as Asian American, and 2) I’d probably have to produce it myself.

It all seemed like a huge, impossible undertaking. But then I found an article about a group of students at the Stanford Asian American Theater Project who produced their own version of “Death of a Salesman” in 2013. After reading it, I said to myself, “I should at least do something!” Since I didn’t have the experience or resources to do a full production of the play, I decided to go with a staged reading instead.

JANM: Tell us about the structure of the play. Who will be playing what roles, and how does the casting work with the existing narrative?

TY: The play consists of two acts centering around the life of a traveling salesman named Willy Loman and his pursuit of success and the American Dream. Time-wise, it takes place in the late 1950s.

When casting the play it was important to me that the family be an accurate portrayal of a multi-ethnic Asian American family. The reason for this was personal, as I am Japanese-Chinese-Korean American. The actor who plays Willy (Kelvin Han Yee) is Chinese American while Willy’s wife Linda (Marilyn Tokuda) is Japanese American. Meanwhile, the actors playing the sons, Happy (Kenzo Lee) and Biff (myself), both have mixed Chinese and Japanese ethnicity.

APIA actors are often cast randomly without regards to their actual ethnicity but, for a family drama, I felt casting accurately would make it feel more authentic. I also decided to cast Willy’s neighbor Charlie (William Gabriel Grier) and his son Bernard (Ky Soto) with African American actors. Through these unconventional casting choices, I wanted to subvert social stereotypes of both the Asian American and African American communities—challenging, for example, the Asian American model minority myth.

It was also important to me that the casting of the play be historically and culturally accurate. For example, I consciously made the choice to cast Willy Loman as Chinese American; if he were Japanese American, he and his family would have been interned during the war years and he would not have been able to work as a traveling salesman.

Likewise, before I cast Charlie’s family as African American I made sure to research whether or not there were actually black lawyers presenting cases before the Supreme Court at that time. Luckily it turned out that during the late 1950s, there was a small number of black lawyers presenting civil rights cases before the Supreme Court—one of them being future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Historical accuracy and authenticity are important to me.

Tadamori Yagi
Tadamori Yagi
JANM: “Whitewashing” (the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles) has been increasingly called out in the media. Do you consider this version of Arthur Miller’s play to be your response to whitewashing in the entertainment industry?

TY: While I did not explicitly intend for the casting to be a response to “whitewashing,” I suppose it could be interpreted that way.

JANM: What do you hope will be the audience’s takeaway after seeing your play?

TY: I hope this reading of the play will resonate with the audience in such a way that some will recognize aspects of themselves or their own families in the play.

JANM: Are there other iconic plays or films that you think would benefit from a similar treatment?

TY: I love period pieces and I love family dramas. I picked “Death of a Salesman” because, in addition to being a compelling drama, it has an inherent universality that can accommodate an ethnically diverse cast. I’m sure there are tons of other iconic plays that could work, especially the more modern ones, like “The Odd Couple,” “Of Mice and Men,” or “Waiting for Godot.”

Ironically, for all the pains I took to cast the play in a “realistic” way, what I took away from the whole process was this: if you love the material and it speaks to you on a human and personal level, the other details don’t really matter so much. As a creative person you should just do the work and you will find a way to make it fit somehow. And if you can’t find a story that adequately fits your experience, you should create your own story, because getting to do the work you love is the main thing.

Tadamori Yagi’s staged reading of “Death of a Salesman” is free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended here.

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